21.02.2013 - 09.03.2013
As luck, (or my mother's fabulous weather-witching skills) would have it, we enjoyed an unexpectedly warm and dry trip through the South Island of New Zealand in late Feb - early March. As we were accompanying my parents on the trip, we decided it would be the best option to hire a motorhome and two bicycles, and brought a small tent for my husband and I. We enlightened my parents on our ways of cramming as much into a vacation as possible. In two weeks we saw all four corners of this lush, sheep filled island, and travelled more than 3300Kms.
Just a quick note for anyone considering camping and hiking in NZ. If you bring any of your own gear, just declare it. They put all the luggage through a scanner, and will see it anyway. They just want to ensure it is clean; free from dirt or other possible contaminants. Fortunately for us, we got off without even a stern word (no surprise that kiwis were listed among the most friendly towards tourists in a recent study). To get a list of cheap and free campsites, pick up a Department of Conservation (DOC) camp brochure. The DOC campgrounds generally have very basic services, but are comfortable and rustic. We tried to stay at DOC sites as often as possible, as most of the private grounds are quite expensive.
Our trip started in Christchurch. As fate would have it, we arrived on the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake. Most of the city is still rebuilding, and seeing the memorial services being set up, and flowers thoughtfully placed in road works pylons made it really hit home. We picked up the motorhome, bikes, a few groceries, and then headed east to the Banks Peninsula. As we had arrived on an early flight, we only made a few stops on the way to the campsite in Akaroa. We spent the rest of the day near the lake; the maiden voyage for the hire bikes was a success, we found a fun, rolly trail to the lighthouse.
The next day we drove to Aoraki National Park. We spent about a half hour at Lake Tekapo, and absolute must if you're in the area. The colour of the water is indescribable, and photos barely do it justice. The old church beside the lake is very cute and finishes the postcard. We absolutely lucked out, and had a perfectly clear day to see Mt Cook as we drove towards it. We stayed at White Horse Hill Campground, which is a comfortable, but basic campground at the foot of Mt Sefton. There's quite a few walking and bike friendly paths to get a better view of Mt Cook, and a number of people were hiking up to Mueller Hut, which we had to put on our "next time" list.
We drove south along the coast to Dunedin, stopping at Moreaki to see (and stand on) the massive boulders that sit along the ocean's edge... pretty cool. We spent one night camping at Dunedin Holiday park, which was just a short bike ride from an amazing view of some wild, windy seas. Dunedin itself has an interesting vibe, with a lot of beautiful historical buildings. The next morning, we drove out onto the Otago Peninsula, and stopped in to walk to beautiful gardens of the Lanarch Castle.
We then had an amazing couple of days in the Catlins. We started off at Nugget Point, south of Balclutha. It's a short and picturesque walk to the lighthouse and lookout, and a few fur seals to look at on the way by. After that, we had a nice hike to see Jack's Blowhole, but despite arriving at high tide, the water did not "blow", so it was somewhat anticlimactic. We drove on to Curio Bay, where we got an amazing camp site at overlooking the ocean. After dinner, we watched yellow-eyed penguins make their timid return to the beach near the petrified forest. The next morning, we had a gorgeous bike ride on the hard packed sand along the bay, and were lucky enough to see a pod of Hector's dolphins playing in the waves. We had wanted to walk on the ocean floor at Cathedral Caves, but had to miss out due to the tide schedule (it's only accessible at low tide).
We made a few quick stops in Invercargill; their tourist information was very helpful and conveniently located. They provided a recommendation for a local fish market where we got some nice fillets and local mussels (which, as it turned out have a taste most of us had not yet acquired). We drove on to Te Anau, where we stayed 2 nights at the Top10 Holiday Park. It is near the lake, near the pick-up spot for the Milford Sound tours, and they had nice (but busy) amenities kitchen. The town of Te Anau is quaint, but because it's main industry is tourism, it has anything you may need. We had a private jetboat tour of the Waiau River to Lake Manapouri; the driver pointing out set locations from The Lord of the Rings series, as well as trout fish swimming in the clear waters.
We found a good deal for a tour to Milford Sound online through "Naked Bus". Imagine the embarrassment I felt asking bus drivers and other tourists if they were on the "Naked Bus" as we searched for the bus, which we later found out was running late... When it arrived, about 40 minutes behind schedule, it said nothing about "naked", so I was glad to have asked the cashier at Kiwi Country what to watch for. The bus driver/ tour guide was a fantastic resource of knowledge and shared interesting facts about the local history, geography, and nature. We stopped a few times along the way; at a crystal clear stream and collected drinking water, and at Mirror Lake, which held true to its name. At Milford Sound we got onto a boat to cruise through the fjords; absolutely stunning. The waterfalls were plentiful, and we saw young seals sunning themselves on a rock.
We stopped at Arrowtown, but decided to drive on the Queenstown, where we set up camp for a few nights at the Top10, which we chose more for location than for facilities. Queenstown is an adventure mecca. With the buzz around town, and tourism shops on every corner, you can't help but to get the itch to want to do something crazy... we thought better of it. My parents enjoyed the luge ride, and dinner at Haka at the top of the local mountain, Bob's Peak. They had another jetboat ride, and said that one was quite a bit more wild. We were deterred by the cost of a lot of things, including the mountain bike park and hire. We rode our cheapy hard-tails up the peak, took in the fabulous view of the Remarkables. We rode down on a fun, cruisy green run and headed into town, straight to Fergburger (for possibly the 3rd time in 2 days). What's Fergburger?... quite probably the cheapest and best eats you'll find in Queenstown, lined up day and night, but totally worth it. We enjoyed a bit of pub and club culture in this vibrant mountain town; we were reminded of many of our favourites back in Canada, and wished we could have stayed.
We went for a long bike ride out of Queenstown, along a beautiful riverside trail, and over a long suspension bridge, and met my parents at the Kawarau Bridge, home of the first bungy. We got to see quite a few people jump, it was a good way to kill an hour or so. We jumped in for a cold dip at Lake Wanaka. We carried on, stopping at beautiful Ship-Creek, which was unfortunately laden in pesky sand flies... and so our battle with the sand flies began. Because they were so bad, particularly at dusk, we decided to drive until after dark, stopping for the night at Fox Glacier. We saw two Kea's at the campground, a beautiful brown mountain parrot, who are known to be scroungers.
The next day we visited both Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier. From the campsite, we rode our bikes through lovely lush rainforest, with Fox Glacier in the background. There is a well established trail, that leads you, unguided, right to the parking lot at the base of the glacier. There's a few waterfalls high up in the mountains, and quite a lovely view. Franz Joseph is quite a bit larger, and there are plenty of walking trails. We decided not to walk towards the glacier, but viewed it from the elevated lookout.
Driving the west coast was another highlight for us. We made many stops along the way to photograph and marvel in the beauty of the black sand, and rugged coastline, with many rock formations standing tall in the beautiful blue water. We stayed at Punakaiki Beach Camp, we splurged for a cheap cabin, rather than chancing a tent with all the sand flies. We sat on black rocks, watching the sun set over the wild, large swell of the ocean; and then walked to a rustic pub for a few pints and nice dinner.
Don't let the name of "The Pancake Rocks" deter you; Punikaiki's amazing rock formations are not to be missed! The rocky coastline has slowly worn away over time, leaving a distinct and stunning layered effect. It takes less than an hour to walk through the paths to views you will never forget. We travelled a windy stretch of highway (including a near miss on a one-way bridge) to meet Bruce from Wild Rivers Rafting to raft the Upper Buller River. It was a fantastic trip, a private tour from a guide who knows the river inside and out. Being the late summer, and in a dry stretch, the river was fun, but not raging. After a brief review and trial of some different strokes, Bruce let us try some pretty neat things, like sitting in an eddy before paddling upstream and dunking the front of the boat. We also had the opportunity to do a couple cliff jumps, the highest being 8m.
We made it up to Cape Farewell, via Takaka Hill, possibly the windiest stretch of road imaginable. (http://dangerousroads.org/australia/1085-takaka-hill-new-zealand.html). We stayed at Wharariki Beach, and after setting up camp we rode the bikes to the northernmost point of the south island. We continued on the Cape Farewell track to overlook Farewell Spit; through rolling farm land, amongst cattle and sheep (and their excrement... the tires were fairly ill after that). From the campground, there is a short, easy walk to beautiful Wharariki Beach and it's infamous formations on the oceans edge. My mom had made plans to ride horseback on the spit the next day, but the weather was poor, and she had been suffering from motion sickness on the road, so they managed to get onto a reasonably priced flight back to Nelson, where we picked them up at one of the many wineries in the region.
We drove south through the Marlborough region and stayed at a DOC campsite at Rarangi Bay, north of Blenheim. It's located near a beautiful, black pebble beach on Cloudy Bay. From some of the walking trails you can see the southern tip of the north island. The next day, we drove south to Kiakoura, stopping at the peninsula to look at a the seals. From Kiakoura, we drove inland to Hanmer Springs, where we would spend the last two nights of our trip.
Hanmer Springs is establishing a nice network of single track mountain bike trails; and then of course the hotsprings are a perfect remedy to any post-ride stiffness. There are some nice restaurants in the area, my parents enjoyed dinner at No. 31; and we sampled some fantastic ciders at Monteiths Brewery Bar while we watched Super Rugby on the big screen.
The next day, it was an easy ~2 hour drive back to Christchurch airport, and the amazing trip was over. We were left with a few thousand pictures and many fantastic memories of this once in a lifetime holiday. Huge thanks to my dad for driving most of the way (at his request!), to my mom for parting the clouds (on more than one occasion) and them both for quickly helping us to take in all the wonders of the south island... and of course to New Zealand and kiwis alike for happily sharing and encouraging us along the way.